By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Not that the red Indian will ever possess the broad lands of America. At least I presume not. But his ghost will.
— D. H. Lawrence
I gaze at the photograph of Dine Tsosie, said to be the last of the Navajo warriors. His face is old and weathered. Deep wrinkles crease his neck.
I don’t know when the photograph was taken. Probably more than a hundred years ago, after the United States Army destroyed Navajo crops and homes, then forced a starving, half-frozen people to walk to a settlement three hundred miles away. The Navajos were beaten, but Dine Tsosie doesn’t look beaten. Sad and wise, but not beaten.
There’s a blanket around his shoulders, beads around his neck. There’s strength and pride in his bearing. I wonder what he sees as he gazes into the distance: The passing of a way of life? The demise of a people? Surely he doesn’t imagine a middle-aged white man, more than a hundred years in the future, staring back at him.
The two of us regard each other mutely, here inside this eight-sided hogan where Norma and I are spending the night.
Our guidebook promised we weren’t likely to encounter a more authentic place to stay. “It isn’t for everyone,” the book said. “You sleep on a mattress on the dirt floor of a hogan, use an outhouse, and eat a traditional Navajo breakfast prepared on a wood stove. But if you don’t mind roughing it a bit, this is a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in Native American culture in beautiful surroundings.”
By the time we got here, I was tired of roughing it. Just a couple of days earlier, we’d hiked into the Grand Canyon. (Hiking all the way down was the easy part, we discovered.) But the bed-and-breakfast hogan sounded more appealing than another night of camping. Norma loves camping. I love Norma. But crawling into a nylon tent doesn’t make me feel closer to nature; sleeping on rocky ground doesn’t make me love the earth.
I worry that I don’t like camping because of some flaw in my character. I’m too soft, I tell myself. Most days I sit in an office heated or cooled at the turn of a switch, at arm’s reach a computer, a telephone, a CD player. I’m concerned about the environment, but I want to be in control of my environment.
My conflict is especially keen here in Navajo country, where for hundreds of years people have revered nature and lived in balance with their surroundings, as if the planet itself were a living, sentient being.
Entering the reservation is like crossing into a foreign country. Known to its people as the Navajo Nation, the reservation has its own language, its own laws, even its own time zone.
The landscape, too, feels foreign in its scale and harsh beauty. Nothing prepared me for how enormous the sky is here, big as a truth you can’t put into words. Or for what it’s like to drive for an hour through rugged desert, then stand at the rim of a canyon, looking down the red-rock walls onto a lush oasis of tilled fields, orchards, flowing water — and the ruins of cliff dwellings mysteriously abandoned seven hundred years ago. The Navajos are only the most recent people to inhabit this landscape; for more than two thousand years, one tribe or another has called the region home.
There are a few modern towns on the reservation with hotels, supermarkets, and government housing. But most Navajos still live in remote areas, without plumbing or electricity, isolated even from one another. Many proudly carry on like their ancestors, surviving off the crops they grow and the animals they raise. But a land-based economy can no longer support the tribe. Some seek work in nearby towns; others turn to drugs and alcohol for solace. Instead of sweat lodges, feathers, and medicine pouches, the emblems of Native American life today are the rusting trailer at the end of a dirt road, the visiting caseworker from the welfare department.
It’s easy to feel like an intruder here, even in the roadside restaurants and gas stations that cater to visitors. Our guidebook says we shouldn’t take it personally: Navajos are taught from childhood not to talk too much or to start conversations with strangers; eye contact while speaking is considered impolite. Yet it’s disconcerting to smile at someone, only to be met by an impassive stare. Or to be given directions by a Navajo woman who doesn’t look at us as she speaks.
At least the bed-and-breakfast hogan is evidence that some Navajos are learning the exquisite tolerances of American capitalism, becoming as adept at packaging themselves as they once were at herding sheep. All around the reservation, as many as four generations live cramped together in dirt-floor hogans like this one. They rough it every day, while we’re paying more to stay here than we would at the Holiday Inn. (Our affable young innkeeper also arranges tours, and can be hired as a “cultural consultant” for fifty dollars an hour.)
But the hogan feels less like a home than like a museum. It’s filled with carefully arranged artifacts — a bow and arrow, a papoose sack, a saddle and harness, a broom made of bundled straw — that obviously once meant something to someone. But, removed from their context, they seem sadly out of place, specimens of a once-alive world collected and embalmed for the curiosity of tourists. I feel as if I’m in a waiting room with all the right magazines — only I don’t know what I’m waiting for.
The innkeeper’s sister, who lives nearby and helps run things, warns us to keep our door locked because “sometimes people come around.”
“What kind of people?” I ask.
“Indians,” she says. “They get drunk. They knock on the door and ask for money.”
I look at the makeshift lock. “What do we do then?”
“Just tell them to go away.”
I ask how her neighbors feel about white people staying in the hogan.
She shrugs. “Some of them don’t like it.”
I shiver a little, unsure whether to light a fire. There’s a potbellied stove at the center of the room, and a stack of firewood, but the stovepipe looks wobbly and unsafe. I’d rather be chilly than burn down the hogan, so I rummage through my pack for a sweater. Then I pick up a book and settle back against the dirt-and-timber wall to catch up on some history.
Long before whites came to the Southwest, I learn, the Navajos were grazing their sheep on the high mesas and in the canyon bottoms, raising families, building homes. They made beautiful pottery. They were superb weavers. Rainfall was as scarce then as it is now, yet they managed to grow corn, wheat, fruit, and melons.
Not surprisingly, they resisted encroachments on their land, first by the Spanish, and later by Americans. Navajo raiding parties regularly made off with the settlers’ horses and livestock, but the Americans kept coming — encouraged by a government that believed in its “manifest destiny” to occupy the entire continent. Finally, in 1864, U.S. Army General George Carleton — who called the Navajos “wolves that run through the mountains” — ordered Colonel Kit Carson to get rid of them.
Carson had no heart for the job. An explorer who had lived among Indians for many years, he said he had joined the army to fight Confederate soldiers, not Navajos. But the general appealed to his patriotism.
Carson’s strategy was to destroy the Navajo’s food base by killing their livestock and burning their fields and orchards. (For sport, some of Carson’s men — called Long Knives by the Navajos because of their bayonets — cut off the breasts of Navajo girls and tossed them back and forth like baseballs.) The strategy was a success. The Navajos were starved into submission and the survivors were marched off to a concentration-camp-like settlement at Fort Sumner — the Long Walk that still lives in Navajo memory.
“The exodus of this whole people from the land of their fathers,” intoned General Carleton, “is not only an interesting but a touching sight. They have fought us gallantly for years on years . . . but when, at length, they found it was their destiny . . . to give way to the insatiable progress of our race, they threw down their arms, and, as brave men entitled to our admiration and respect, have come to us with confidence in our magnanimity.”
Without supplies, many Navajos died along the trail. At the fort, there was a shortage of fuel and good water, and many more died of malnutrition and disease. Finally, after four years, the survivors were given a few sheep and goats and allowed to return — to a reservation much smaller than the land they had previously held. They discovered that their best land had been handed over to white settlers; even those Navajos able to return to their homes faced many years of deprivation — their horses gone, their livestock dead, their fields in ruin.
American history, James Baldwin once observed, is larger and more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.
I look again at Dine Tsosie. Those eyes. They seem to reflect all the beauty of a lost time, of a world that was alive and endless.
To the Navajos, the land was imbued with spiritual meaning. So many of their rituals and ceremonies were connected to the land; during the Long Walk, they feared they were being exiled not only from their home but from their gods.
I can’t imagine feeling that rooted. I call North Carolina home, since I’ve lived there more than twenty years, but I’ll never think of myself as a Southerner. I no longer consider New York City home, though it’s where I grew up. Like most Americans, I’ve moved many times. I remember the places I’ve lived as if they were faces of people I’ve loved; I’ve cherished each of them. But where do my roots connect with the earth? Do my roots go down — or sideways?
Chief Seattle, one of Dine Tsosie’s contemporaries, said his people would haunt us. Was he right? Did we herd the “savages” into reservations only to watch ourselves become more and more savage?
But Americans don’t believe in curses, or the ghosts of dead Indians. We’re a nation on the move, makers of highways and information highways. We don’t call it rootlessness. We call it freedom.
As we get ready for bed, Norma and I talk about whether to stay on the reservation another day. Norma says that being here makes her uncomfortable. Even though she knows that Navajos have every reason to dislike whites, it’s hard for her to wear the mantle of the oppressor, hard for her to relate to people who won’t relate to her. She feels shut out.
I tell her I know what she means. For many years I lived below the government’s poverty level — as a matter of choice. I marched for civil rights. I used an outhouse. Besides, my ancestors were also persecuted. The central fact of history I learned as a child was the Holocaust. The concentration camps became my litmus test for anyone’s philosophy: if your theories addressed the fate of the six million Jews, drew them inside the folds of your faith and optimism, then fine, I’d listen to your theories.
I walk to the wash basin, splash some water on my face. What theories can I offer for the Navajos’ exile and imprisonment, and the legacy of distrust and bitterness that remains? Today, many Israelis try on the tight uniform of the oppressor, and it fits. I live in a house with three bathrooms.
I try to sleep, but the least sound wakes me. The darkness taunts with more darkness. Eventually I drift off, then wake up again, needing to pee. I don’t want to go outside, but I have no choice.
I open the door cautiously. After all, I don’t even know where I am. We followed the innkeeper here down dirt roads, turning at unmarked intersections. At the nearest compound — a typical extended-family arrangement with a small house, a hogan, and several trailers — the lights are out. There are no cars on the road. No drunken Indians.
The sky is full of stars.
I remember, as a boy, playing cowboys and Indians. I was always the cowboy. The Indians were always bloodthirsty, wanting nothing better than to send an arrow through my tender little body. I had toy guns to defend myself; such a big imagination.
How many Indians did I kill in my imagination?
In the morning, we’re served breakfast by the innkeeper’s sister: potato cakes, some kind of corn dish that looks like grits, and toast. There’s also something she calls Navajo tea, made from grains and served with Sweet-and-Low. She brings the food to our door on a tray, which she sets on the floor.
Norma asks what kind of grain the tea is made from, how it’s prepared. The woman shrugs. “Is this a traditional breakfast?” Norma asks. The woman shrugs again. Norma starts to ask another question but the woman cuts her off. “This is how we do it here,” she says.
After the woman leaves, Norma says she feels disappointed. She wanted to know how the Navajos prepare a meal, how they grind the corn, bake the bread. She shakes her head. “What did she mean, ‘This is how we do it here’? That on the reservation people are served breakfast on a tray?”
I recall a conversation I had a few months ago with Sherman Alexie, an Indian writer from Spokane, Washington. He complained that the romantic myth of the spiritual Indian damages Indians today because it forces them to live up to an impossible ideal. No one can be that Dances with Wolves kind of Indian. Indians carry good and bad in them, he said. When whites try to take all the good out of native culture without accepting any of the bad, it’s just a different kind of theft.
Before we drive off the reservation, we stop for coffee at a trading post that sells everything from canned beans to expensive Navajo rugs. (The rugs cost thousands of dollars, though the women who weave them usually make less than minimum wage.)
I lean against a counter, listening to the music coming over the sound system. Though I can’t understand the words — the woman is singing in Navajo — I’m transfixed. The singer’s voice is strong and passionate, her melodies haunting.
I end up buying the tape with a translation of the lyrics. I listen as we drive. When Sharon Burch sings of her happiness for the things that sustain her life, for the rain, for the white corn; when she sings that the earth’s arms are her arms, the earth’s strength her strength, I ache as if she were singing a love song.
The singer credits her inspiration to the prayers and chants she learned as a child. She grew up on an impoverished reservation, yet despite hardships she learned to love the living earth. I, a privileged white man who grew up in the city, love nature the way you love a distant relative. I pave over my day with busyness. I make my desk the world, call a stack of papers a mountain. Even my body becomes an abstraction, something to keep fit, to work on at the gym.
How simple it seems to love the earth, yet how difficult it is even to love ourselves. Maybe the word love is the problem: so easy to say, such an easy, lovely sound. Maybe the word should be longer, made up of so many slippery syllables and prickly consonants that it takes a day to pronounce. Maybe it should be longer than all the broken treaties, longer than the final, desperate breaths of all the Native Americans hunted down like animals and driven from their land. There were more than two hundred tribes in North America when Europeans first immigrated to the New World: five million Native Americans. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were only 250,000 left.
In the distance, a teenage Navajo boy clambers onto a horse, and rides off bareback in a cloud of red dust. The highway before us is flat and empty. The light seems inexhaustible, as if the day could never end.
In recent years, Sy Safransky has become very sharp at delineating the contradictions and hypocrisies with which we middle-class American soul-searchers live. He always does so in the first person, explicitly indicting only himself, but it’s clear that he writes with an awareness that his audience will relate to his predicament.
In “This Land Is Your Land” [May 1995], he depicts the essential distances between our ideals and our lifestyles, between tragic history and any realistic hope for redemption or resolution. (I almost think he feels that the desecration of the planet and the annihilation of indigenous cultures are somehow directly traceable, along some karmic continuum, to his discomfort with sleeping in a tent.)
Yes, the distance between our ideals and the tragic reality is immense. And I know we won’t see that distance bridged in our lifetimes. But we know miracles happen; we know a seed becomes a plant. We also know that we’re each responsible for our own small part.
So how do we begin to heal those distances that Safransky so keenly perceives? I guess we have to give ourselves a little credit for wanting to heal them in the first place. Then we must act as if we could make a difference, as if our every gesture and deed are part of a great ocean of contributions, the collaborative work of redemption and salvation. None of us can see the whole picture as it unfolds, and none of us can really even know if it truly is unfolding, but that’s part of the charm and mystery of being human.
Thanks to Blythe Brennan for setting the record straight. I should have distinguished between the arrival of Spanish settlers in the sixteenth century and of U.S. settlers three hundred years later — by which time the highly adaptable Navajos had borrowed much from Spanish and Pueblo Indian cultures, and were busy tending their flocks, peach orchards, and farms. Of course, this didn’t prevent the U.S. Army from rounding up the Navajos and sending them into exile. When Brennan calls the Navajos “warlike,” I wonder: compared to whom?
I am distressed by the historical inaccuracies in Sy Safransky’s “This Land Is Your Land” [May 1995].
Navajos were not, as Safransky states, grazing sheep on high mesas before the white men came. Sheep — like horses — came to their land with the Spanish in 1540. Neither were the Navajos building homes, making pottery, weaving baskets, or growing wheat. Weaving and metalworking were learned from the Spanish and the Mexicans. Pottery was not important for the Navajos, but it was for the Pueblo Indians. And wheat, too, came over from Europe with both the Spanish and British.
Before white men came, the Navajos were a warlike, nomadic people. To state otherwise is to fall into the trap that Sherman Alexie warned Safransky about: promoting “the romantic myth of the spiritual Indian,” who was noble and perfect before the white man arrived. Such fantasies do none of us any good.
A lot of what Safransky says in his essay, however, is pertinent and interesting. As a Southwesterner, I blush to think that someone conned him into paying good money to spend a night on a hogan floor. It’s a little like Tom Sawyer and the whitewash.
I was incensed by “This Land Is Your Land.” It angered the part of me that is sick to death of tourists. Although I am Caucasian, I was raised on an Indian reservation. I read Safransky’s essay while on one of my frequent trips home to visit my parents.
Safransky writes, “It is easy to feel like an intruder here.” He and his wife are intruders. He eloquently describes the Navajos’ signs of discomfort at their presence, but also his own lack of respect for that discomfort. A tremendous sense of entitlement came through in the essay. He might as well have said, “We paid your price. You have no right to withhold the ingredients of the tea and the food from us.”
As a white person from an Indian reservation, I am used to carrying the burden of guilt and shame for this country’s history. Occasionally I feel that burden is imposed on me by an Indian, but this is rare. I have the knowledge to write an essay about the genocide committed against the native people of this country. I prefer, however, to let Native Americans write that story. Anything else feels to me like further theft of their culture.